The Mystery of Nuneaton's African Chiefs: Part Three

St Nicolas vicarage, late 20th century. The building has three dutch gables to its right. | Image courtesy of Tim Clamp
St Nicolas vicarage, late 20th century.
Image courtesy of Tim Clamp
The gravestone referencing Canon Robert Savage and George Mandyoli Konah Macomo. | Image courtesy of Colin Paterson
The gravestone referencing Canon Robert Savage and George Mandyoli Konah Macomo.
Image courtesy of Colin Paterson
George Mandyoli Konah Macomo's death certificate. | Crown copyright
George Mandyoli Konah Macomo's death certificate.
Crown copyright

In the previous section, I looked at the chiefs’ time in Nuneaton. This section concludes the story.

Savage’s son Alfred, who would have been 12 years old when the chiefs arrived, had struck up a close friendship with George Maqoma. Alfred died at the age of 16 in 1863 and, in the circumstances, Maqoma was thrown even more closely into the bosom of the suffering Savage family.

A sad homecoming

The chiefs were probably in the congregation on the dramatic Sunday that Canon Savage received a message when about to preach saying that Alfred, who was recovering from scarlet fever by convalescing in North Wales, was seriously ill. Savage immediately hastened to Llandudno but arrived too late. It seems likely that the two chiefs watched the sad homecoming since, when the vicar returned on the Tuesday with the body of his son, the inhabitants of the town assembled at the station and lined the streets to the vicarage.

The death of Maqoma

By the middle of 1864 the two chiefs were all set to return to Cape Colony. They were planning to go back to the Bishop of Grahamstown as ‘catechists’ – teachers of the faith – and planning in the long run to enter Holy Orders. But only weeks before their return Maqoma died in June 1864, being buried on the 29th.

For some time we believed the newspaper report in the Coventry Herald that Maqoma had died from a ruptured blood vessel in the head, what we would call an aneurysm. But be wary of believing everything you read in the papers! When the death certificate was obtained in 2015 it showed he had died of phthisis, a lung disease related to TB. Perhaps the English winters had been too much after all and the reluctance to admit the true cause of death is revealing. Was there now some guilt about bringing the chiefs out of their known environment to somewhere very different?

The Revd. Dr. Peter Hinchliff, the historian of the Church in South Africa, felt there was ‘a good deal of quite unintended cruelty’ in the policy of bringing African chiefs like this to England. The deaths of a number of chiefs that did come over would seem to lend force to this argument. Maqoma’s brother Edward had also spent time in England in the early 1860s but died soon after returning to the Eastern Cape. To the 21st century mind the policy seems one of enforced assimilation.

A bitter blow

For Canon Savage and his wife and family, Maqoma’s death must have been a bitter blow, coming as it did after all his training and on the eve of his departure. Maqomo’s friendship with Alfred Savage and the latter’s sad death the previous year must have added poignancy to the events. Their similar ages and their close friendship helps to explain why Canon Savage buried Maqomo in the family vault. Two more sons of chiefs joined Henry Tsatzoe at the graveside as did Maqoma’s brother Members of Savage’s family . On the following Sunday Canon Savage preached from the Book of Revelation, where the vision of all nations in harmony is proclaimed by St John the Divine.

The other chief, Henry Tsatzoe, returned safely to Cape Colony the following month. Records for the 12th April 1865 of a Christian Institution in Cape Town include H. Duke Tsatzoe, one of 17 native teachers. But by this time Sir George Grey was no longer Governor and the Xhosa tribe had been militarily defeated. Grandfather Maqoma, was in prison, on Robben Island, the same place that his illustrious descendent, Nelson Mandela, found himself in 100 years later.

Parallels with the past

So, recent South African history bears a fascinating resemblance to the Warwickshire story of the 1860s. The inspiring account of the release and subsequent South African Presidency of Nelson Mandela in the 1990s produced a revival of interest in his Xhosa predecessors. The vision of racial harmony, just starting to be realised in that beautiful country, has now come a long way from some of its earliest faltering attempts in a mid 19th century Warwickshire vicarage.

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